Did You Notice? … Martin Truex, Jr. is having one of the most unexpected career surges in Sprint Cup history? Keep in mind, just two years ago he led just a single lap all season with his single-car, Furniture Row Racing No. 78 car based out in Colorado. Truex wasn’t even supposed to last beyond the 2015 season at FRR, his driving in disarray following the “Spingate” scandal which ultimately led to the destruction of his former employer, Michael Waltrip Racing.
Instead? We’ve seen a jump in performance rarely seen before at this stage of a career in NASCAR history. Through his first 369 Cup starts, Truex had won just three times, finished inside the top 10 in points only once and never led 1,000 laps in a season. At age 37, with over a decade’s worth of Cup experience it was fair to wonder if his journey as an athlete had plateaued.
Instead? Take a look at these comparisons.
Previous Career High – Wins in a Season: 1, three times
This Season: 4 wins
Previous Career High – Laps Led: 567 (2015)
This Season: 1,594
Previous Career High – Average Start: 12.1 (2012)
This Season: 8.9
It’s not just the number of races won for Truex this season but what he’s won… and how. Longest race in NASCAR? Check (Coca-Cola 600). Oldest 500-mile race? Check (Southern 500). First playoff race in the Chase? Check (Chicagoland). Hometown race? Check (Dover on Sunday).
In two of those four victories, the driver absolutely dominated throughout. He led more laps in the Coke 600 alone than he has in most seasons on tour. And Sunday’s butt-whipping of Dover, if not for a late-race coasting to preserve the win could have left as few as four drivers left racing on the lead lap. He would have won the old Winston Million $100,000 bonus and come within inches of the million, losing the season-opening Daytona 500 by inches.
As history tells us, this type of jolt from slightly above average to full-fledged superstar rarely happens in NASCAR. Should Truex win a title, he’d do so in his 11th full season and he’d do it with rarely a whiff of title contention beyond last season. Let’s compare that to when other recent champions earned their first Cup trophy…
First-Time Cup Champions Since 1990
Jeff Gordon – 3rd full-time season (1995)
Brad Keselowski – 3+ (2012)
Kurt Busch – 4th (2004)
Matt Kenseth – 4th (2003)
Tony Stewart – 4th (2002)
Jimmie Johnson – 5th (2006)
Alan Kulwicki – 7th (2000)
Bobby Labonte – 8th (2000)
Kyle Busch – 11th (2015)
Dale Jarrett – 13th (1999)
Only Jarrett and Busch took as long as Truex would take to win a Cup title. But in both those cases, each driver was knocking on the door for years. Jarrett made a spirited run for the title in 1993, the year of his first Daytona 500 victory and just missed out on titles in 1996 and 1997 (third and second, respectively). As for Busch, he was a frequent Chaser and once won more races in a season (eight, 2008) than Truex has done his entire career. Busch was entering “best active driver to not have a championship” talk before he nabbed one during last year’s furious comeback from injury.
That backdrop makes the story of Truex, inspiring enough considering the circumstances (innocent victim of Spingate, girlfriend fighting cancer, little-engine-that-could team from Colorado) that much sweeter. It’s the type of story, if successful we won’t see at the Cup level again anytime soon.
Did You Notice? … How clean the start of NASCAR’s Chase has been? Dover featured a green-flag run of 202 laps to finish the race, the longest we’ve run there without a caution since the late 1990s. Only four cautions flew, all for one-car incidents and not a single car failed to finish due to a wreck.
That race simply continued the pattern of Chicagoland and Loudon. In all, Round 1 of this Chase produced only 14 cautions, less than five on average and not a single one for a multi-car incident. Only one driver failed to finish after wrecking (Trevor Bayne, New Hampshire) and just one Chaser posted a DNF: Jamie McMurray at Dover (engine failure).
Are such green-flag stretches a good thing for a sport whose postseason ratings have taken a major hit? Yes… and no. Yes, green-flag racing is what the fans want, races to play out naturally instead of artificial rules or controversial yellows getting in the way. Yes, teams want to see races decided by pure speed instead of who’s out in front three laps after a restart.
But there’s a downside here. In the old days, these long green-flag runs would consistently jumble the field due to tires that wore off, mechanical failures, and other challenges that could leave drivers racing from behind. In the modern NASCAR era, nothing seems to break and the tires fall off less; the end result means a lot of drivers running in place until late in a green-flag run. Too many drivers appear to perpetually run in place; when they fall behind, there’s always the Lucky Dog and the wave-around to get them back in position to contend.
The current aero also means that when these long green-flag stretches do happen, the field spreads out and you have a leader who often builds a large advantage of several seconds. With limited challenges, the quality of racing suffers throughout the field; drivers become in need of fresh tires and a feisty restart to get them going.
Are no cautions better than fake cautions? Perhaps. But what we’re missing in this Chase so far is contact. I’m not saying Matt Kenseth needs to spin out Joey Logano again. NASCAR just needs these guys to get mad at each other, to rub fenders a little bit so each championship car looks like it came out of the junkyard after every race instead of arriving to the hauler in pristine condition.
Did You Notice? … Quick hits before taking off…
- Times, they’re a-changin’. Saturday marks the first October Charlotte Cup race we don’t have an Earnhardt, Gordon, or Stewart in championship contention since 1992. Chew on that one a bit. That season, Alan Kulwicki won the series title with a true single-car team, Richard Petty was in his final year driving and Chase Elliott, Ryan Blaney and Erik Jones hadn’t even been born. So will the next generation of NASCAR stars stand up? Now’s your chance.
- NASCAR said earlier this season the current Chase format would stay in place for quite sometime. Now? They’re considering awarding points or some sort of playoff advancement as a reward for the regular season champion. How quickly minds change….
- Five of the 12 drivers remaining inside the Chase drive Joe Gibbs Racing chassis. Another two are from Hendrick Motorsports directly, a team that had its act together in round 1 and yet another duo come from Penske Racing. Do the math and 5+2+2=9. By comparison, there are only eight spots left in the next round… and that’s assuming the other three drivers left (Kurt Busch, Austin Dillon, and Kevin Harvick) don’t get their act together enough to make the final eight. On paper, it’s about to get very interesting.
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